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Sheldon Riley was told his autism meant he'd never achieve his dreams, but he has
Ahead of his appearance at the Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, Australia’s entrant Sheldon Riley opens up about the struggles in his childhood which led to the inspiration behind his song, 'Not the Same'.
Published Sunday 8 May 2022
By Abby Dinham
“I was told at six years old ... they'd avoid me if my heart was cold.”
The opening lyrics of the song 23-year old Sheldon Riley will sing on the world’s stage at the Eurovision Song Contest tells a very personal story.
“I was diagnosed with autism when I was really young — six, nine and 12 — actually, they had to tell me three times that I was on the spectrum,” he says.
“I was told for a long time that I wouldn’t be able to execute myself as a normal functioning human being, to get work or have friends or have a partner.”
In a message he wrote on Facebook, Riley detailed the thoughts and struggles he faced just trying to live as his true self. Years later that letter was turned into his song, 'Not The Same'.
Sheldon Riley was diagnosed with autism as a child. Source: Twitter
“I wrote it when I was 15 years old," he says.
"Being diagnosed with autism so many times and being told what I could and couldn’t achieve, there was a moment in my life where I thought I’m not going to care anymore and defy all these things people told me I wasn’t going to be able to do.”
“I wrote this line: ‘The light shines bright through those who are broke inside’, that’s the main theme of my song. It didn’t matter how many times I was broken down and told who I couldn’t be, I remade myself into who I wanted to be.”
It didn’t matter how many times I was broken down and told who I couldn’t be, I remade myself into who I wanted to be.Sheldon Riley
At the age of 17, he tentatively stepped onto the stage of X-Factor Australia, wearing a plain grey shirt and jeans, his pitch-perfect voice trilled over the lyrics of John Legend’s 'Ordinary People'.
Two years later, he performed Culture Club’s signature hit 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me', on The Voice. Boy George himself sang Sheldon’s praises. This time he wore a purple jumper, the arms adorned in feathers, a small glimpse of the authentic self he was becoming.
“I just want to go back in time and take that little young version of myself and bring him into the world I have now because I love my life. I love what I do now. I’ve worked so hard for what I’ve created,” he says.
In 2020, Sheldon made the quarterfinals of America’s Got Talent, his crystal-studded face masks and avant-garde outfits becoming his signature stage wear as he settled into a life in the spotlight, all from the humblest of beginnings.
“I’m a kid who grew up in public housing. I went to 13 different schools, we moved to over 30 different houses. Nothing was permanent, nothing was solid. The only constant I had was my family.”
His Australian-born mother and father, who is of Filipino heritage, are deeply religious, he says.
Riley's song 'Not the same' is based on his childhood experiences. Source: Twitter
“I was prayed over to fix [the autism] for a long time. It’s not that they didn’t accept me, they just always wanted to protect me and make sure I got the best out of life.”
His father often helped Sheldon prepare outfits for stage performances and both parents are now in awe of what their son has achieved.
“They’re so proud of me now, not just because of Eurovision, but with everything I have done with my life. It’s been a long journey.”
[My parents are] so proud of me now, not just because of Eurovision, but with everything I have done with my life.
Becoming Australia’s choice to represent the country at Eurovision, Sheldon says, was validation that music lovers are taking him seriously.
“I’m not just the reality TV person or someone who dresses up because they love to dress up, I’m a musician. I write my own music, I am completely independent.”
Sheldon has spent months travelling with fellow Eurovision entrants, attending and performing at pre-Eurovision parties in Israel and Tel Aviv, taking his place in the world he knew he belonged, from the first moment he saw the song contest on SBS.
“With the religion side of things, Eurovision wasn’t always so accessible for me, but I remember at my grandparents' house there was an advertisement on SBS that included the bearded lady, and I thought 'who is this?' It made me want to be someone like that, who makes my mouth drop.”
The bearded lady was Conchita Wurst, the Austrian singer who won Eurovision in 2014 with the song 'Rise Like A Phoenix'.
“It was this little spark of hope for me that said ‘you’re so so different from everyone else but there is an audience for it so don’t change that.’”
Already famous for his fashion, the task of creating his Eurovision costume fell to Melbourne based internationally renowned designer Alin Le’Kal.
Designer Alin Le'Kal has worked with Sheldon Riley on his Eurovision outfit. Source: SBS / Abby Dinham
“Australia isn't really known for fashion in Europe and I feel like Australia being represented in Eurovision the past few years is fantastic," he says.
"And specifically, with this outfit we’ve created, I feel like it will push boundaries and put Australia on the map.”
The outfit has been kept under wraps ahead of the competition in Turin this week - Alin Le’Kal only giving just one word to describe his design … "heavy".
“It’s 38 kilos, and that’s just one aspect of it. Collectively it's about 40 kilos, so shipping that to Italy has been a challenge.”
The song contest is open to international guests for the first time in two years, and many members of the Australian Eurovision fan club are making the pilgrimage to Turin.
Alin Le'Kal hopes to boost Australia's fashion profile in Europe. Source: SBS / Abby Dinham
Australia has participated in Eurovision since 2015, coming close to winning the competition just a year later with Dami Im.
Australian Eurovision fan club numbers have increased five-fold since then, says member Jamie Williams, who believes Australia has well and truly earned its place on the stage.
A Eurovision fan attends an Australia's preview party dressed as Sheldon Riley. Source: SBS / Abby Dinham
“From the start, Australia finished top five with Guy Sebastian. It just proved Australia wants to be there, we want to bring the best music. That's why we get invited time and time again. If we keep up our end of the bargain in bringing good music, they’ll keep inviting us.”
Warming up his voice in Turin this weekend, Riley posted on Instagram: "I’ve never been more happy in my entire life. So grateful".
Watch Eurovision on SBS
The 66th Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast live and in primetime exclusively on SBS and from 11 to 15 May, with primetime broadcasts on Friday 13 and Saturday 14 May at 8.30pm, and Sunday 15 May at 7.30pm.
LIVE early morning broadcasts
Semi Final 1 – Wednesday 11 May, 5am (AEST) SBS
Semi Final 2 – Friday 13 May, 5am (AEST) SBS *Featuring Sheldon Riley
Grand Final – Sunday 15 May, 5am (AEST) SBS
Primetime evening broadcasts
Semi Final 1 – Friday 13 May, 8.30pm, SBS
Semi Final 2 – Saturday 14 May, 8.30pm, SBS *Featuring Sheldon Riley
Grand Final – Sunday 15 May, 7.30pm, SBS
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